HOT auditions shifted online amid pandemic

While it is typical for woodwind and brass instruments to hold their auditions online, accommodations had to be made for prospective members to effectively audition for drumline and color guard. ORACLE PHOTO

As ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius once said, “Music produces a kind of pleasure which human nature cannot do without.” In the times of a pandemic, the USF Herd of Thunder Marching Band (HOT) is not ceasing to ready itself to create music and entertainment in the 2020-2021 school year.

HOT works to drum up excitement and school spirit at all times of the year through their performances — pandemic or not, according to Marc Sosnowchik, HOT’s director.

HOT typically holds its auditions for the woodwind and brass instruments, drumline and color guard over the summer through in-person sessions, clinics and camps. However, due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, it had to reevaluate this process.

Sosnowchik said the woodwind and brass sections had been doing virtual auditions for the previous two years, so they were not affected as much, but the color guard and drumline had to figure out how to make the transition to virtual information sessions, clinics and auditions.

Although the sections of the band and color guard are a united group, each section had separate audition processes.

The woodwind and brass audition music was released March 5 according to Sosnowchik, and prospective members had to submit a three-and-a-half minute recording by May 15 to be considered.

“This process works well for students so they can do it in their own time frame that is comfortable for them,” Sosnowchik said.

Although this is the usual way for woodwind and brass auditions to take place, that didn’t exclude the audition from facing a few challenges. 

“Some students didn’t have access to instruments because they were in band rooms that could not be accessed, and we did not want those students to be excluded because of the pandemic,” Sosnowchik said.

A few students faced this problem, so the HOT director and his colleagues allowed for them to submit a detailed resume of their band experience as well as letters of recommendation from their former band directors.

However, the auditions for potential new members looking to join the drumline were much more impacted by the pandemic’s social distancing limitations.

USF Drumline Director Martin McHale coordinated the summer camps and virtual audition process.

“When we were forced to makeshift something that was going to be an online format, my goal was to replicate as much as the in-person,” McHale said.

According to McHale, the drumline hosts three informal, nonmandatory camps over the summer to inform potential new members of the audition process and make sure they are prepared.

“The traditional format is informal camps take place and then one or two days of auditions in person,” McHale said. “We have allowed people who are out of state to do online auditions in the past because we understand getting here can be impossible, but only had one of those last year.”

This year, camps will be held virtually on Microsoft Teams, and one has already occurred on May 22. McHale said the first camp went well, but there were limitations.

“There were lots of limitations in terms of music,” McHale said. “It’s super impossible for everyone to play at the exact same time over a virtual platform because of lagging and sound.”

Aside from the musical performance hindrance, McHale said missing questions and having the opportunity to see and hear everyone perform in person were other issues the virtual camp presented.

In typical auditions, McHale said if he notices a student falling behind in one area, he will direct them to another section of the drumline where they may be more comfortable and their talents can be best utilized. In the first camp, McHale realized regulating and determining that was more challenging.

“If there is a kid struggling on snare drums, I want them to maybe be in the cymbal room as much as possible if that is something they could be more successful at,” McHale said. “The meetings were happening at the same time in the first camp, so now we will be staggering it so they can be given a proper assessment.”

The first session attendees will have the opportunity to attend these staggered meetings at the next camp so each student is able to be a part of meetings with the different drumline section leaders, according to McHale.

After the camps, all auditions will be done through video submissions, but McHale said there may be potential in-person callbacks at the end of July or in August if permitted.

The color guard has also faced challenges in their audition process.

Elizabeth Bannon, director of color guard, winter guard and feature twirlers, is an alumna of USF and the color guard program. She graduated in 2008 with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and is also a Hillsborough County elementary schoolteacher.

In the past, Bannon said they have had virtual backup plans in case a student could not attend the in-person tryouts, so they had some framework to go off, but wanted the process to be more streamlined and work for all who wanted to audition.

“I knew the auditions were going to be viewed by many people, and I wanted to make sure that neither the virtual process nor the pandemic would get in the way of a participant’s talents or what they could do,” Bannon said.

Since 2013, Bannon has been working with the color guard and said her heart “has always been in making sure that the people who aren’t perfectly polished, but have potential, have the opportunity to shine” in any situation, so she wanted to determine what would be the best way to go about the virtual auditions.

“I did search around to see what other universities, that were out of state, were doing and I tried to pretend what it would feel like to go through those processes,” Bannon said. “I noticed all the questions I would have had as an incoming member and freshman and kept that in mind.”

Through her searching and lots of communication with her staff and captains, Bannon decided that Facebook Live would be the best way to go about the virtual audition informational process. 

This allows for the videos to be saved and watched later by those interested who could not make it to the livestream, and it allowed for potential new members to rewind and watch parts again.

The audition process consisted of two parts, according to Bannon. One being performing a routine that was sent to those auditioning a month prior and the other being an on-the-spot choreographed routine to see how quickly the auditioner picks up and learns.

The videos were to be published on YouTube for the color guard staff to review.

For the on-the-spot portion, there was the challenge of how to teach it and then perform right away.

“Choreography is usually taught and auditioned in one day, but we obviously couldn’t do that,” Bannon said. “Instead, we gave them a three-day window to polish and send the video in, but even that is a pretty quick turnaround.”

Bannon said that each captain and section leaders took different aspects of the audition process, and the poms section leader, Tiana Lee, was responsible for assisting with the on-the-spot choreography.

Lee said that teaching virtually presented difficulties.

“It was a lot harder than I thought,” Lee said. “As I was teaching I would have to transition back and forth to see what questions they were asking, and I wanted to make sure everyone was getting the information to be successful. Some questions would get lost in the feed, which is different because usually in person I can hear them and answer their questions right away.”

Bannon said she agreed that teaching virtually presented more difficulties, and was a lot lengthier than in-person teaching due to the challenge of checking the chat feed as well as getting kicked off Facebook Live a few times because of technical difficulties.

With this being the first time they did virtual teaching, Bannon said there were mishaps that were quickly figured out.

“If you use the front camera on your phone it mirrors the image and if you use the back camera it doesn’t, and we didn’t anticipate that,” Bannon said. “My captains wore a scrunchie on their right wrist to determine right side versus left side when teaching.”

By the second video, Bannon said the issue was worked out since she had a staff member participate in the Facebook Live as if he would have been auditioning himself to catch any problems.

As of now, the color guard has called back its top ranking potential new members and divided them into first and second tiers.

The usual rookie camps will take place online as well.

“Right now, everything is scheduled to be online until the beginning of the semester unless something is told to us,” Bannon said. “Rookie camp is another chance to watch them again. After the first rookie camp, they will have two weeks to submit what they learned at the rookie camp.”

Bannon said the callbacks are not something the color guard does, but because of the virtual atmosphere, they felt it necessary to attempt to hold an in-person callback.

Those who were called back were given contacts to veteran color guard members who could help them improve in time for fall.

Lee said she was contacted by two students already and she has critiqued their videos.

While she adapted to the online platforms, Bannon said she hopes to get back to in-person as soon as permitted.

“Right now, I am waiting until July 1 to hear from the university if campus events can open again,” Bannon said. “My plan right now is to give instruction virtually until we can get them in-person, but if it gets too late we will use the videos from rookie camp as evidence of growth and cut from there.”

Bannon said she is happy with how the process went and felt that it was an enriching experience overall.

The color guard director is not the only one satisfied with the audition process — so is Sosnowchik.

“Sosnowchik was so impressed with our plan for the color guard for virtual auditions that he submitted it to the College Band Directors National Association (CBDNA),” Bannon said. “The CBDNA solicited information nationally about how programs have adjusted to be online. He sent them my plan to share nationally.”

Bannon had not yet heard back from the CBDNA.

Sosnowchik is unsure about HOT virtual auditions being the new normal, even though both he and Bannon said the interest in auditioning was higher than the previous year.

“I haven’t talked to the staff about doing it virtually again yet,” Sosnowchik said. “We have great teachers here and we really want those students to have contact with them, so I can’t speak for them, but I think they prefer to be back in person, but we have found ways to reach out to students who are not able to come to campus.”

Bannon said she is also unsure about the color guard’s future with virtual auditions and said a hybrid of in person and online may be best suited for the process.

McHale said he feels as though this is a learning process.

“The lessons we are learning from this summer is something we will keep with us,” McHale said. “We have to be creative, and do what we think works and run with it.”

Lee said she felt those auditioning were all very patient and understanding with the process.

“I’m glad that everyone has been so flexible,” Lee said. “This is new for me and everyone and we are all in this together. I am very grateful for the kindness. It was heartwarming.”